There's an App for That

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Categories: Innovation

For most of human history, skills have been passed from master to apprentice on an "as needed" basis. As the apprentice encountered a problem, the master would demonstrate the solution and the apprentice learned.

Early academic institutions operated along similar lines. It's only in the last century that learning has moved to a "book-and-exam" model. But many researchers have questioned the effectiveness of this method of learning for skills that involve contextual variability. Instead, they advocate developing communities of practice, mentoring and other options to replicate the master and apprentice approach.

The problem with these approaches is timing: Can the master be available when needed by the apprentice? Most of the time, it seems the answer is no!

Project management involves a very high level of contextual variability, particularly in the area of interpersonal relationships, motivation and leadership -- the so-called soft skills. Learning these skills in the "school of hard knocks" is not fun and has significant costs for the inexperienced project manager and organizations that rely on them.

Advances in modern technology may offer a solution. Intelligent agents can already deliver context-sensitive information based on what an application has learned about you.

Looking forward a year or two, it's not difficult to envisage applications on your iPad or smartphone that can understand the knowledge you're likely to need for each task or meeting. It could make the one or two relevant items in the organization's knowledge management system available to you as needed -- plus, of course, the relevant project information. If the context is not clear, advanced links could even find a "knowledge master" who's immediately available for additional advice.
The smart systems then learn from your interaction and update the corporate knowledge banks. Add the ability for you and your colleagues to then input lessons learned and you have the basis for a true learning organization.

Many of the elements are already in place. The question is, are we, as a profession ready to make effective use of the potential? 
Posted by Lynda Bourne on: August 26, 2010 01:02 PM | Permalink

Comments (4)

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Michelle Hartlen, PMP
Interesting concept, however, you said yourself that project management is heavily dependent on interpersonal skills. Frameworks, methodology and process are all theory until put into practice and exposed to the unknown, uncontrollable environment.

It is how a project manager applies these theories and concepts in an uncontrolled environment (let’s be honest, once you add people, anything goes) that will truly determine their success. That “how” is based on a person’s perception of what worked and what didn’t in similar past experiences.

The results of several studies of late show that teens today, who are heavily involved in social networking vehicles such as Facebook, etc., have a pronounced inability to read body language and are, consequently, at a distinct disadvantage from those of earlier generations. Further, while there is an arm in psychology that has endeavored to prove that the brain is just a big computer. This, by extension, would ultimately enable systems developers to finally build a computer that can think.

Psychologists have not been able to get past “consciousness,” which in lay terms is subjective experience because of the very fact that it is subjective to the individual . No one can reach the level of master without the opportunity to apply their theoretical learnings in a living dynamic environment most especially in our line of business.

I am enormously grateful to those people who have mentored me throughout my career and have taken the time to show me the way.

Paul Hancocks
Interesting thoughts Lynda. It seems to me that there is a bit of a link between this thinking and Bill Kreb's blog ( from July.

If technology can be used to monitor the learning somebody has taken in the past and anticipate the gaps in their knowledge and experience today (their needs "now") - then it must be a good thing.

However, as anyone who has invested in software development will know, it is so important to be clear about the requirements and benefits from the outset. Making an app compelling is key. The user has to find it so easy and beneficial. They've really got to get a lot out of using it.

Interesting idea. A PMI sensai in your pocket?

Fawzia Salahuddin
I would agree with Michelle Hartlen. I think what mentors can do, no app will ever be able to achieve even with Artificial Intelligence built in to bridge the gaps. The ability to intuitively perceive risks or requirements for a situation after years of experience and then tailor that experience to suit the need of the client is something that remains innately human. There are many studies on how quickly children learn (pick up) when in a peer group environment as opposed to when being instructed (even by a parent). This continues to apply to us (humans) even as we grow older - it is easier to learn and understand when shown how. Thanks for an interesting topic.

Alex Mendoza
I am not a fan of the word "never" and I have seen several good attempts at machine learning but the human psychology and behavior are so complex even to model that even a seasoned mentor can misread a gesture or an email and may give a response that was not appropriate or even unproductive. What more a computer?

The human emotion and intent as well as the ability to piece together hard facts with experience and then tone them accordingly to arrive at the total response (which would include the intent of the sender itself and his perceived path or plan on how to get there) is certainly very complex to even put on paper now, much less program it so that it is self-learning and self-sustaining. A requirements document itself is hard to conceive.

Knowledge association is the key though and so it is conceivable that a machine can learn through "experiences" but I think it would need to follow the same path that we humans do it - through knowledge acquisition, holistic interpretation, association and tact and it is conceivable that over time, it can utilize all these and give insights to the new project manager on the block on what worked and did not worked before.

That I believe is the strength of the machine in this arena - knowledge retention. You could probably never remove though the human factor in the equation since each scenario and case is different and should be treated that way.

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